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  • Writer's pictureQuique Autrey

Understanding the Fine Line: Reflection vs. Rumination

Socrates famously said, "the unexamined life is not worth living." As an introvert and 4 on the Enneagram, I thrive when I have plenty of time to think, self-reflect and ponder the deep mysteries within myself and the world around me. I've always resonated with Socrates' wisdom. In fact, there's been a secret smugness about my proclivity to indulge in deep, introspective thought. Whatever is happening in my life, I've entertained a fantasy that because I think deeply about myself, I must be doing something right. The smugness comes from looking down on others who I perceive as shallow and unreflective. Living a life that Socrates would deem unworthy.

Self-reflection and introspection are essential for a fulling life. The danger is in navigating the fine line between reflection and rumination. Reflection can lead to deeper self-awareness, greater resilience and enhanced emotional intelligence. Rumination often results in anxiety, depression, and exacerbates existing psychological symptoms.

Rumination or Reflection?

A few weeks ago I was reminded of the etymology of rumination from a client studying to be a veterinarian. I learned the word ruminate comes from the Latin word "rumen" which once referred to a compartment in the stomach of cows. In animal science, rumination refers to a cow's tendency to "chew the cud." Cows regurgitate partially digested food up from the stomach for another chew.

In the realm of human psychology, rumination is "engaging in a repetitive negative thought process that loops continuously in the mind without end or completion."

The research is clear that unchecked rumination can lead to anxiety disorders and depression.

Reflection, like rumination, is focused attention on internal thoughts and feelings. Reflection is time spent pondering, exploring and examining one's life. Time spent problem-solving and exploring feeling states can result in personal-growth and creativity.

So what is the fine line between rumination and reflection? It's not whether the content that's being pondered is negative. One can examine a mistake at work or an issue in a relationship and learn from it and figure out a positive solution. That type of inner work can be reflection and not rumination.

I think there are two things that distinguish rumination and reflection. The first is whether or not one is seeking an end or completion to the inner process. The second is the tone and emotional charge in which we do the inner work. Let me break both of these down below.

Reflection Has an End Point

Let me start by being clear about what I am not saying. I am not suggesting that self-reflection is something that comes to an end in the sense that we come to a complete understanding of ourselves and the world. Reflection is a lifelong process. The philosopher Heraclitus wrote, you will not discover the limits of the soul by traveling, even if you wander over every conceivable path, so deep is its story.

What I mean by an end point is that reflection aims at some tangible solution or positive outcome. This is clear if we contrast it with rumination.

Susan Nolen-Hoeksema defines rumination as "repeatedly and passively thinking about the causes or consequences of problems without moving to active problem solving." This is where rumination can feel like a never ending hamster wheel. It's not going anywhere productive. As my wife likes to say, trying to accomplish something through rumination is like trying to get somewhere on a rocking chair!

Reflection is introspective processing and pondering that helps us understand ourselves better. More often than not we feel we grow and expand after we spend time in reflection. Rumination does not lead to greater self-awareness. It usually keeps us stuck in self-doubt and self-flagellation.

This leads us to the second important difference between the two.

Reflection and Self-Compassion

According to Rick Hanson, the difference between reflection and rumination (what he calls introspection) is, "whether the reflection process is productive. Introspection is productive, rumination is not: it's repetitive, negativistic, and often self-flagellating - and thus a major risk factor for anxiety and depression."

This is another way of saying that reflection has a type of end point (e.g., productivity) while rumination does not. There is something very important to highlight about Hanson's quote. Unlike reflection, rumination is often self-flagellating. Rumination is so toxic and psychologically damaging because it is a cycle of self-judgement placed on repeat.

Kristen Neff, professor of psychology at UT Austin, is one of the pioneers in the research of self-compassion. Self-compassion refers to the process of extending compassion to oneself during times of perceived inadequacy, failure or general suffering. Although self-compassion is not a separate counseling modality in my repertoire, it does inform my work with clients and my own spirituality. According to Neff, there are three elements of self-compassion.

1. Self-Kindness vs Self-Judgement

Self-compassion encourages us to be warm and understanding toward ourselves when we make mistakes, fail, feel inadequate, and suffer in our lives. Unfortunately, for many of us, self-kindness is not a natural posture we take toward ourselves. According to Rick Hanson, are brains have evolved with a negativity bias. This means that our brains are hardwired to scan the environment for threats and not to focus on positive resources or opportunities.

Our brains are primed to imagine that self-judgment and internal criticism will protect us from harm and keep us from becoming lazy. Many of us hold metacognitive beliefs that in order to succeed and accomplish our goals we have to be harsh and judgmental with ourselves.

The research actually points in the opposite direction. Self-kindness does not result in laziness or self-indulgence. People who practice self-compassion and extend kindness to themselves tend to have a learning or growth mindset where they recognize mistakes and set backs are a normal part of the process. Where self-judgement tends to shut people down, self-kindness actually increases motivation.

If rumination is harsh and results in self-judgement, reflection navigates imperfections and growth in a spirit of self-kindness.

2. Common Humanity vs. Isolation

I find that when I ruminate, I feel more and more isolated. I get caught in a loop of negative perseverative thinking and this makes me feel separate from others and like I am the only one who is struggling like this.

My clients report this same reality all the time. Rumination is like a magnifying glass that amplifies the dark and negative realities in our life. The more we ruminate the closer the magnifying glass gets to our issues. We start to believe that our struggle is unique and no one could ever understand what we are going through. This sense of disconnection and isolation, according to Erich Fromm, is the worst suffering imaginable.

Self-compassion encourages us to remember that suffering, hardship and setbacks are inevitable facets of the human experience. When we reflect we may be processing very difficult material. If we can remember that we are not alone and that we are sharing in a common, shared human experience this will help us not fall into the trap of rumination.

3. Mindfulness vs. Over-identification

As I write this blog, I'm excited about a conversation I'll be having with my good friend Rudy on Psyche podcast. We've been doing a series exploring the thought of psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. Our intended goal for our next conversation is to explore themes from Fromm's book Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism.

I've read the book twice and I feel like I've only scratched the surface of what Fromm is getting at. In terms of the scope of this blog, I want to highlight a concept that Fromm writes about that has helped me differentiate reflection from rumination.

Fromm introduces the concept of cerebration. Cerebration is the process of reducing reality to our thoughts and concepts about reality. Fromm gives the example of seeing a ball rolling down the street. For a young child, she has an experience of the ball rolling down the street. For most adults, we are thinking about the ball rolling down the street.

Rumination is connected to what Adrian Wells calls the cognitive attentional syndrome (CAS). The CAS is an, "unhelpful style of thinking characterized by worry, rumination, monitoring for threat and unhelpful cognitive and behavioral coping strategies such as avoidance and thought suppression."

I think there's overlap between what Fromm calls cerebration and what Wells and other cognitive psychologists call CAS. When we cerebrate or are trapped in CAS, we are over-identifying with our negative thoughts and feelings. We are reducing the rich and complex nature of reality to our limited words and concepts.

Self-compassion encourages us to move from cerebration to mindfulness. Mindfulness, "is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them." Mindfulness is neither suppression nor identification with our negative thoughts and feelings.

If rumination encourages cerebration and over-identification with thoughts, reflection is more in line with a mindful approach to reality. Self-reflection incorporates an awareness of the body and a focus on the present moment. Rumination tends to be severed from body awareness and focuses on the past and future.

Reflect, Don't Ruminate!

In this final section, I want to describe three strategies to help resist rumination and three ideas to help you practice healthy self-reflection.

Is Rumination Uncontrollable?

Before describing three exercises to help you resist rumination, I have to address a very common assumption brought up by so many of my clients.

Isn't rumination uncontrollable?

The short answer is that rumination is within our conscious control. I have not always believed this. In fact, for most of my life, I have operated under the assumption that there is not much that I can do to manage my rumination.

Here's the thing. Our thoughts are out of our conscious control. We know that thought suppression does not work. Try not to think of a pink elephant. I bet you just thought of one!

While we may not have conscious control of our thoughts, we can change our relationship to these thoughts. Think of rumination as a certain toxic relationship to our thoughts. We obsess, dwell, perseverate and become enmeshed with our thoughts when we ruminate. It doesn't have to be like this. Just like healthy interpersonal relationships are possible, so are healthy relationships with our thoughts.

Three Strategies To Help Resist Rumination

While resisting rumination is possible, it's not always easy. Like any other worthwhile endeavor it takes, time, effort, and discipline.

Create distance from your thoughts

Before you can resist rumination, you have to acknowledge that you have fallen into the pit of rumination. One of the best ways to do this is to practice cognitive distancing. Cognitive distancing is a strategy in Metacognitive therapy (MCT) and other cognitive therapy approaches. It is a metacognitive process where one gains a level of awareness of their thought process. It is a type of thinking about our thinking.

According to Alford & Beck, "distancing refers to the ability to view one’s own thoughts (or beliefs) as constructions of “reality” rather than as reality itself." The stoic philosopher Epictetus encouraged an early form of cognitive distancing is his ancient philosophical Handbook:

Train yourself, therefore, at the very outset to say to every harsh impression: “You are merely an impression [phantasia] and not at all what you appear to be [phainomenon].” (Enchiridion, 1)

Thoughts or impressions aren't necessarily true and should not always be taken seriously. Once you have enough distance from a disturbing thought, you can decide how you would like to relate to it.

I encourage my clients to write down their negative thoughts/feelings in a journal. I ask them to write them down in third person:

Michael is having the thought that he's not a very good father. Michael is comparing himself to other fathers in his neighborhood.

Writing things down in third person helps the brain experience greater distance from the emotional charge of the thoughts and impressions.

Question the Purpose of the Overthinking

It's important to remember that we all have metacognitive beliefs about the value of our rumination/overthinking. Some of us believe that our rumination will help us solve our problem or help us feel better. Others believe that rumination is uncontrollable.

These metacognitive beliefs need to be questioned. If you can question the validity of your metacognitive beliefs about the utility of rumination, you can slow down your ruminating and overthinking.

The next time you fall into rumination ask yourself these questions:

Do I really believe that I can't stop this rumination?

Has rumination ever made me feel better?

Postpone Rumination For a Different Time

A common intervention I use with clients is known as worry or rumination postponement. When you find yourself wanting to overthink, tell yourself:

I'm reallly wanting to worry and dwell on this thing. I'm going to set an alarm and worry about this thing at 4:00pm. I'll give myself 10 minutes to worry the hell out of this thing and then I'll do something else.

Since the mind tends to self-regulate when not in a state of attentional fixation or threat, chances are what you wanted to ruminate about may not have the same emotional charge that it did hours earlier. Even if it does, setting aside 10 minutes to ruminate instead of all day can help with anxiety and depression.

Three Ideas to Encourage Healthy Self-Reflection

Reflection can be a healthy practice to grow in self-awareness, emotional intelligence, creativity, and resilience. There's no one right way to do it. You have to find the practices that work for you.


Working with a good therapist can be a great way to go deeper into yourself without falling into rumination. A therapist can ask the right questions and help you navigate triggering thoughts and emotions. He/she can also equip you with important tools and skills to help you explore your inner self outside the clinical hour. If you're really struggling with rumination, you may consider working with someone who incorporates MCT or CBT in their approach.


I have found journaling to be a great way to express my difficult thoughts and emotions without it devolving into rumination. There's plenty of good research on the mental health benefits of journaling. I find that it is a way for me to experience emotional release, organize my thoughts and explore difficult material in a time-bound manner. Although I may not "accomplish" or "achieve" anything, journaling keeps me from spiraling into the never ending void of rumination.


A few years ago a colleague introduced me to the acronym SPOT (Special Place of Tranquility). This can be anywhere in nature where you can take a few moments to experience emotional calm, and mental clarity. Finding a special place you can go to experience mindfulness can put you in greater touch with yourself and the world. This is a dedicated time to move from cerebration to present moment contact with reality. I try to get time in nature several times a week for 10-15 minutes at a time. I sit in my backyard, enjoy a nice cocktail, and either read a book, journal or simply listen to the birds singing.

I'd love to hear from you and how you have found time to reflect in nature.

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